By Richard Vedder
Suppose you are made president of a top 20 (but barely in the top 20) US and News Report school. The board that hires you tells you: "Take us to a higher level --top 5 or at least top 10 school.” (That is what every board seems to be telling its presidents lately --therein lies a problem). Suppose also that you believe in the American Dream, and that you want to use higher education to help able but poor kids get ahead, and publicly announce that you want to commit the university to the furtherance of that goal.
You’ve got problems, as Tom Mortensen's last Postsecondary Education Opportunity (December 2007) points out. More than one-third of students nationally are on Pell Grants. Looking at all 100 or so of the "best" national universities (as measured by US News), the proportion of Pell grant recipients going to these schools is dramatically less. Indeed, the proportion of students getting Pells at the best schools is often less than 10 percent, and almost never greater than 20 percent. Pell Grant students are represented perhaps one-third as much at the "best" schools as at other institutions. From 2000 to 2007, the national number of Pell recipients rose sharply, yet the absolute number on Pell grant students fell at such great universities as Yale, Cornell, Northwestern, Chicago, Stanford, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Cal Tech, and Duke. While a few great schools had healthy growth in Pell Grants (most notably Harvard, but to a lesser extent Brown, Dartmouth, and North Carolina), at a typical school the gains in Pell Grants recipients was drastically lower than the national average.
Herein lies the dilemma. Poor students are less likely to have top SAT scores, less likely to go to high schools with good reputations and lots of AP classes, less likely to have two college educated parents to help and encourage them, etc. To rank high with US News, you need to get very good students, and that is extremely difficult to do while taking in more poor kids since, on average, poor kids are less good academically than rich kids. Do you sacrifice prestige or the egalitarian impulses of the American Dream? The people paying your salary want prestige -- or at least that is what past experience shows.
Maybe we should do a "Pell Grant-adjusted" ranking of schools --giving extra weight to schools for taking in lots of Pell recipients, and subtracting weight for those who shun those kids. Looking now at liberal arts colleges rather than national universities, Berea College (US News rank=75) has tons of kids on Pell Grants (the school actually discriminates against rich kids), whereas Claremont McKenna College (CMC; US News rank=11) and Kenyon College (US News Rank=32) are yuppie schools (with which I have had some prior association), with fewer than 10 percent of students on Pells. It may be, adjusted for socioeconomic status of students, Berea is doing a better job than CMC or Kenyon.
When my Whiz Kids read this, they will burst into my office with regression equations in their heads --ways of coming up with a Pell-adjusted index. I will tell them we are going to adjust the US News index for both socioeconomic status of students (as measured by Pells), and by postgraduate student success (as measured by Who's Who entries). I am curious what we will get. But that is another story for another day.